The Life in My Years

An anthology of life

I’d originally planned to post this after a final edit on January 6th. The events of that day compelled me to focus on a more pressing topic (see posts January 6th 2021. Insurrection in America  and Cut by the Knife of Corruption. )

“We will open the book. Its pages are blank. We are going to put words on them ourselves. The book is called Opportunity and its first chapter is New Year’s Day.”
― Edith Lovejoy Pierce

New Year’s Day 2021. In “normal” times I’d start the year off with a morning glimpse of the Rose Parade in Pasadena. After getting my fill of bands, floats and hackneyed commentary delivered by “B” list celebs, desperate for a gig, any gig, I’d move to football where I would stay through the day and into the evening.

In this house I’m the first one to see the light of the new year. In this house I’m the first one to see the light every day of every year. I’m the early riser; the morning coffee brewer, furnace starter and dog feeder. I like being the first one up; being able to get a quiet, solitary jump on the day. I recognize sleep as necessary but it’s almost an evil one.  Sleep is a subject of debate in this house.
“I love to sleep,” says Cora.
“It’s nice,” I respond, “but it’s a waste of time.”

Years ago, when we hosted New Years Eve parties, being the early riser lost some of its appeal when the New Years Day groggies descended at about halftime of the Rose Bowl Game.  Those New Year’s Eve parties ran into the early morning hours with a few of those affairs greeting the early flickering of dawn. What seems like a good idea in the wee hours loses some of its shine with the onset of a woozy daze.

With the coming of older age, wisdom and, well, turning into dull people, Cora and I rarely stay up until midnight. That doesn’t mean that we don’t greet the new year. At the stroke of midnight we’re usually awakened by the booming of the illegal fireworks.
“Ugh. Dumbasses better not set the dry grass on the hill on fire.”
“Happy New Year dear”
“Yeah, happy New Year dear. Go back to sleep.”

This year we watched Wonder Woman 84, a film that our son tried to warn us away from. Our daughter chimed in,
“Everyone says it’s no good.” Even though she hasn’t seen it.
Cora does that same “Everyone says…,” thing.
Donald Trump also does it, (“Everyone tells me I’m the best president since Lincoln, maybe better.”) which is as good a reason as any to avoid “Everyone says…”

WW84 isn’t a bad movie. It’s action packed, angst free entertainment. I don’t watch a superhero movie with the same expectations as I would American History X or Fences or Selma.  Sometimes you just go into a movie with the intention of being entertained without being left despondent over world affairs or depressed by the state of the human condition. Wonder Woman took us to 11, an hour before the end of an ironically forgettable and yet unforgettable year. Cora went straight to bed and I read for a short while before going to bed. At midnight the illegal fireworks went off.
“Ugh. Dumbasses better not set the dry grass on the hill on fire.”
“Happy New Year dear.”
“Yeah, happy New Year dear. Go back to sleep.”   

2020 wasn’t a normal year and there’s no illusion that 2021 is going to get off to a normal start. Let’s not forget though that normal has become a relative term. For the past ten months we’ve gone through various different iterations of normalcy. It’s become a normal activity to contemplate the nature of the normal of the moment, predict the normal of the future and lament the passing of the normal before the birth of the demon child named 2020.  For Cora and I the new normal isn’t normally different from our normal routine in the pre-new normal days. Normally we don’t worry about these new normal days as long as we’re normally careful.

So, the Rose Parade was just another in a string of holiday COVID casualties and as for the football, which I would normally watch, well, my interest in sports has mostly been a casualty of COVID.  In May of last year, you know – ages ago, I was thrilled to watch my first COVID era live sports event, a NASCAR race – a touch of normalcy even though the normally packed grandstands were new-normally deserted. On New Years Day this year I watched a few minutes of an early bowl game; can’t recall which game it was or who was playing.

When Cora got up I suggested that the two of us take Lexi for a walk at Crissy Field in San Francisco. New Year’s Day is normally an ideal day to drive to The City. The normal bottlenecks are non-existent, the Bay Bridge toll plaza is clear and traffic flows freely over the bridge and through The City, particularly in downtown where the traffic normally moves at a crawl.


Crissy Field is 130 acres of bay front strip that runs west from the Marina Green to the entry road to Fort Point where a short walk leads to the Civil War era fort.

It’s at this very west end of the bay, next to Fort Point and beneath the bridge that the relatively calm waters of the bay give way to the rough waters known as the potato patch. This is the gateway to and from the Pacific, the narrow channel used by vessels ranging from small sailboats to aircraft carriers. In the early morning the potato patch carries fishermen and crabbers departed from Fisherman’s Wharf. This is the “catching” place; the place where fisherman perch on the rocks and seem to catch more snags than fish and surfers, either very brave or foolhardy (in my uninformed opinion), catch the short waves and then cut deftly away from the jagged shore. It’s also where you catch a view of the underbelly of the Golden Gate Bridge; where you catch an icy wind that whips off the Pacific and where you might catch a cold if you don’t bundle up.

I’ve taken the voyage through the potato patch a number of times on fishing party boats. It’s a sensory treat. The air is chilled, the smell of the sea bright and crisp and the ocean spray bracing. You hear the splash of water being cut by the boat’s prow as you watch the brightening sky and the lights of a city just awakening. Whatever drowsiness you had getting up at the ungodly hour is left behind at the pier as the boat sets out. There is no coffee potent enough to match the reviving power of dawn on the bay.

A boat’s eye view of The City

It’s here at the potato patch that the seaworthiness of your constitution gets tested. I was in my late teens when dad and I took my uncles and aunts out on a party boat to catch salmon. Coming from Salt Lake City the roughest water they’d ever encountered was a few mild swells on an otherwise glass smooth lake.  They all got queasy on this trip. I still have the vision of my Uncle Glenn who spent much of the outbound trip huddled at the stern where he pitched and rocked with the boat as his stomach rocked and pitched his previous night’s dinner, morning’s breakfast and Bloody Mary’s into the blue Pacific.

During another trip, I shared one of the bench seats with a fellow who seemed to be turning 50 shades of gray. As I enjoyed the movement of the boat and the cool, fresh ocean air I pulled a tuna fish sandwich from my backpack. On seeing me take a big bite, mayo and tuna salad oozing from the sides of the sandwich, the man seemed to recoil in disgust before stumbling to the rear of the boat.


In 1920, Crissy Field was opened as a U.S. Army airfield. It was another of the many, “Seemed like a good idea at time,” deals. While the flat site was considered ideal for an airstrip, the reality of it’s unsuitability due to the wind and fog off the bay and the nearby Pacific quickly became apparent. The construction of the Golden Gate Bridge further hampered air operations and in the 1970’s air operations were largely halted.


After getting married in 1981 Cora and I moved to a flat on a short street named Seal Rock Drive at the very west end of San Francisco. We were young, surviving paycheck to paycheck and living in a place that we didn’t properly appreciate at the time as one of the most magical locations in the Bay Area.

A few blocks to the south was Golden Gate Park; to the southwest, Ocean Beach; to our east the diversity of the many neighborhoods and the vibrancy of Downtown San Francisco. A half block west was Land’s End where trails wind along the cliffs above the Pacific, affording spectacular panoramas of the ocean and the Golden Gate Bridge. At Land’s End on a bright clear day you can stand on the cliffs and imagine that the mirage on the horizon might just be Japan.  On a winter day the power of sea and weather leaves you agape as the cypress trees hunch over from the gale, and the wind and rain lash your face as you watch the ocean pound the rocks below.

 

Just a short drive from our flat was Crissy Field, in 1981 largely forgotten by most, but a well known gem for local runners.

Starting at Fort Point you run west on a bayside trail and continue to the Marina Green, past Aquatic Park and Ghirardelli Square and then weave around the tourists at Fisherman’s Wharf, cutting through the warm blast and aroma of the steam pots brimming with Dungeness crabs, past more tourists at Pier 39 and along the bayfront, past rows of piers to end at the Bay Bridge – just over five miles.

I ran by myself in those days. Cora had no interest in running and honestly I had no desire to run with her. None of my friends or coworkers were runners and even if they were I wouldn’t have enjoyed their company. Running was my personal passion – one that strained our marriage at times. I didn’t crave conversation or musical accompaniment. The beat of my shoes striking the pavement and the rhythm of my breathing was what spoke to me. Most of all I didn’t want to deal with another’s pace or complaints. And while I might have started and ended my runs by myself there were those times when I and another runner, a total stranger, would happen upon each other and wordlessly pace and challenge each other, knocking out miles of six minutes and faster before one of us veered off and we breathlessly thanked each other for the workout. Those were the days of looking forward to hot afternoon runs, of luxuriating in a stream of sweat down my shoulder and needing a headband to keep my hair out of my eyes.

“The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected.” ― Robert Frost

It’s come down to plodding ten and eleven minute miles, avoiding the heat with dawn runs and wearing a cap to keep my bald head warm; changes I never considered in those days of cruising effortlessly past the older guys who are now me.  You don’t realize the change as age chips away; not until the constant little cuts made by the years become holes. And though I may not have discerned the changes as they happened, I’ve always appreciated my good fortune. During my brief bouts of religion I would turn eyes skyward during a run and thank god for the gift of health.


In 1994, as part of a spate of military base closures, the Presidio Army Base adjacent to the field was closed. Crissy Field itself lay fallow and polluted, because along with being good at national defense the military is a very efficient polluter. Subsequent clean-up cost millions of dollars and resulted in the removal of 87,000 tons of hazardous materials. Begs the question, where or where do they store all that shit?

In 2001 Crissy Field was officially opened to the public as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. It’s one of the most scenic settings in San Francisco and it includes a café, picnic areas and a web of wide trails. The restored wetlands are home to 17 species of fish while over 100 bird species have been spotted there. There are beaches for those hardy enough to venture out into the brisk water.

Near the far west end fishermen try their luck in the bay waters from a fishing pier. Even if you don’t catch fish you can be entertained by all the scenery and the activity on land and sea. It’s a natural multiplex theatre.

On a sunny day the panorama includes views of the San Francisco skyline, the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, fleets of sailboats and windsurfers skittering on the bay waters.

City skyline from the Warming Hut

 

Golden Gate Bridge as seen from The Warming Hut

We’ve lived in the East Bay for over thirty years but we still visit Crissy Field. Some Mothers’ Day picnics, a birthday and numerous hikes. It’s been nearly twenty years ago that I coached high school cross country.  One day during preseason I brought the team out for a run along the bayshore, a break from the usual workouts which were often boring runs confined to the bland neighborhoods of San Pablo. That bayside run was a treat for the kids. At Ghirardelli Square some of the group veered over to the chocolate factory and got free chocolate samples before continuing their workout.


New Year’s Day 2021 is partly cloudy with temperatures in the sixties. We arrive at a nearly full parking lot; looks like hundreds have the same idea of enjoying the outdoors to escape the news of COVID and months of dark political theatre. Not expecting to see so many people I debate over whether to stay or go home but nearly everyone is masked, there’s a breeze and it isn’t as if keeping distance is a problem so we decide to stay.

Runners, cyclists, dogs romping in the water and rolling in the sand. Out in the bay a fisherman in waders ventures out into the waters while a few yards down the beach a man clad in swimming trunks goes for a numbing dip. A wisp of low clouds provides a thin veil around the bridge towers as a bright red freighter passes underneath.

Freighter passes under the Golden Gate

Along the path we pass a raven perched on a fence post. The bird poses for photos before flying along the path to light onto another post. It’s as if he’s preening for an adoring public. The wetlands flutter with flocks of shore birds.

 

Shore birds at Crissy Field.

On the beach a burly bearded man stops and looks at Lexi and I anticipate the usual question.
“Gordon setter?”
“Yep.”
“I’m from North Carolina and you see setters there all the time. You don’t see them so much out here. Beautiful dog.”
We visit with the man for a while.

He tells us that he put down roots in The City some time ago, evidenced by the beaten, worn out San Francisco Giants cap that he sports.
The conversation turns to the obvious and he tells us that the lettering on the COVID shuttered Cliff House Restaurant has been taken down.
Sad news.
The Cliff House was a short walk from our Seal Rock Drive flat. One New Years Eve Cora and I walked down the hill to catch the last moments of the restaurant’s New Years celebration. We’d already started a bottle of Champagne and as we walked down the street I took pulls from the bottle. Our walk took us past Louis’ Restaurant, a little diner perched on the cliffs above the old Sutro Baths and the Pacific. On occasion we’d walk to Louis’ for chowder or a seafood sandwich. In July of last year, after 83 years of serving tourists and locals, Louis’ became a victim of COVID and closed for good.

During our conversation with the man on the beach Cora tells him about the North Carolina barbecue that we had for dinner the night before, a gift from our son that was shipped from King’s in Kinston, N.C. The man rubs his ample belly and tells us that King’s is a favorite. Our conversation sticks with barbecue, the uniqueness of the vinegar based style of his home state compared with the tomatoed and spicy varieties of Memphis and Texas. A little more small talk, greetings of Happy New Year and best wishes to stay safe and we move on.

Just before getting to the Warming Hut Café and Bookstore, we turn around. The Warming Hut is a pleasant little pit stop where you can get a hot chocolate and a pastry on a chilly bay day. It offers a selection of Golden Gate National Recreation Area souvenirs and carries a selection of books. These days it’s COVID closed.

It wasn’t possible to completely leave COVID behind us for an afternoon but it got close. Sure there were plenty of masks, a good thing, but we’ve become so used to masks and they’ve become such a familiarity that we don’t even associate them with a pandemic – they’re normal now. Out here the maskless are an oddity but I’ve heard stories that in many states it’s the masked that are the exception.

For one afternoon near the water, under cotton clouds and the sounds of seabirds we were able to put aside the morbidity of ten months.

“Escape? There is one unwatched way: your eyes. O Beauty! Keep me good that secret gate.”
― Wilfred Owen,

 

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5 thoughts on “2021: Page One – Bayshore

  1. After a year of pandemic and more recent events it is a breath of fresh air to pay respects to the natural beauty we enjoy in our country. Your descriptions and photos of this less developed area of SF speak to a pastoral beauty which brings balance. One of my favorite quotes of noted conservationist, Laurance Rockefeller, is: “In the midst of the complexities of modern life, with all its pressures, the spirit of man needs to refresh itself by communion with unspoiled nature. In such surroundings- occasional as our visits may be- we can achieve that kind of physical and spiritual renewal that comes alone from the wonder of the natural world.”
    I particularly enjoyed (and share) your 2021 New Year reflections on early rising, the history of a favorite haunt, running, the loss of a favorite eatery and aging (with a nod to Vermont’s one-time poet laureate).
    Stewart

    1. Paulie says:

      Thank you Stewart. I guess my rediscovery of the seashore is one positive to the pandemic (a small victory?). During these months the beaches are relatively crowd free (except for the ones that attract surfers and they’re out in the water anyway) so the beaches have become a safe outdoor sanctuary. The waves are big this time of year and they make for many good photo ops. That they’re big means they’re dangerous here in Northern California. Five people got swept out just last week. I make sure to keep my distance and never turn my back on the water.
      We’ve lost quite a few eateries as I guess you have too. It’s like watching bits of our lives die.
      One bright spot is that I got an email from the Schooner Mary Day, the windjammer that Cora and I were supposed to sail on. They’re booking for this coming season. I’m hoping that COVID clears enough in late summer that I can go. Cora was never keen on going so we might have to figure on her and I splitting up for a few days. I’m sure she can find something to do in Maine.
      I’ve liked Robert Frost since I was a kid. Of course he was just about the only poet that we were exposed to when I was a kid.

  2. eden baylee says:

    Hi Paul,

    Thanks for the history lesson about Crissy Field and for your pictures. Both were inviting and made me think of better days for you and Cora.

    It’s sad that so many landmarks have closed or will have closed by the time we resume some kind of normal.

    Hoping for warm, sunshine days sans Covid.

    Have a great week,
    eden

    1. Paulie says:

      Thanks Eden. I needed to come up with something positive. You have a great week as well.

  3. Hettie D. says:

    I am with. you in early-rising. Sleep is overrated :)) There are way more interesting things to do, especially in the morning 🙂

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